Rhiannon Giddens Freedom Highway Nonesuch
It’s both poignant and indeed disturbing that Freedom Highway, the title of Rhiannon Giddens second solo album, was inspired by the Staple Sisters song of the same name, recorded over fifty years ago and motivated by the Civil Rights movement in Alabama at that time. The album was originally to be named At The Purchaser's Option but the prevailing political tensions and developments during the writing process made her reconsider the title.
Giddens debut solo album Tomorrow Is My Turn was released in 2015. Produced by T.Bone Burnett, it featured, in the main, interpretations of material previously written or performed by artists ranging from American blues singer Geeshie Wiley to country legend Dolly Parton together with a quite spectacular rendition of the traditional American folk song Waterboy. Only one song, the closing track Angel City, was penned by Giddens. While never concerned with concentrating on a particular style the album deservedly received glowing reviews, in the main earned by Gidden’s stunning vocal delivery throughout.
Freedom Highway on the other hand proves to be a more fiercely personal project, unfolding in documentary style and giving the often faceless and anonymous the opportunity to articulate their struggles, pain, helplessness and abuse. Many of the songs are taken from the female’s perspective, a recurring theme is the mother child relationship with the album visiting the casual and cruel manner by which that relationship was shattered both in former times and indeed to the present day. The inner sleeve of the album features a newspaper cutting from 1797 advertising the sale of a young female slave with the inclusion of her nine-month baby At the Purchasers Option. This proved to be the inspiration and motivation for the opening track of the same name."You can take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood but not my soul."
It plays out as an album that Giddens was always going to record and on her own terms. Her previous solo album and recordings with The Carolina Chocolate Drops were produced by T. Bone Burnett, Joe Henry and Buddy Millar. This time around Giddens avoids the possibility of a more polished and over produced recording by taking control herself in the co-production with multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell. Produced at Powell’s studio in Breaux Bridge Louisiana, the majority of the songs were recorded in a pre-civil war wooden structure and captures a timeless ambiance.
The Angels Laid Him Away, a cover of the Mississippi John Hurt original, is stripped back to feature vocal and acoustic guitar and dwells on a mother’s loss at the death of her son. Better Get It Right The First Time, full on country soul, visits similar territory but in the present times, questioning the shooting of a young black man and featuring an unexpected yet entirely compelling rap by Giddens nephew Justin Harrington. Julia, tells the tale of an exchange between a slave girl and her mistress as Union soldiers arrive at their plantation, the mistress pleading with the defiant young slave to dutifully safeguard the family’s trunk of gold. "Mistress, O Mistress, that trunk of gold Is what you got when my children you sold."
Birmingham Sunday, written by Richard Farina and immortalised by Joan Baez, is delivered vocally almost trance like as if Giddens is reliving every last word. Opening with Dirk Powell’s slow piano intro and closing with the addition of an accompanying choir it moved me to the point that I found myself playing it on repeat a number of times prior to continuing with the rest of the album.
Giddens interpretation is at odds with the Staple Singers version on the closing track Freedom Highway. Favouring a less pacey delivery and introducing horns and handclaps, it may stray somewhat from the more gospel sound of the original but lyrically delivers the same message that it did back in the mid 60’s.
Giddens has been in receipt of numerous awards and nominations over the years including a Grammy Award in 2011 with the album Genuine Negro Jig. A late comer to song writing she can justifiably be as proud with this album as any other career highlight to date.
Kaurna Cronin Southern Loss Self Release
Kaurna Cronin was voted Folk Alliance Australia’s Artist of The Year in 2015 following the release of his last album Glass Fool that year. Southern Loss follows twelve months later and is further recognition of the growing body of talent in the Americana/ Folk genre coming out of Australia in recent years. Artists such as Kaurna Cronin, Emma Swift, Ruby Boots, CW Stoneking and Beth Brown have the ability to follow in the footsteps of fellow Australian's Kasey Chambers, Shane Nicholson and Anne McCue by establishing themselves in a market that is highly competitive.
The album consists of ten tracks written and produced by Cronin and recorded at Mixmasters Studio in Adelaide with the mixing and mastering carried out by Mick Worley. Musicians featured on the album are Cronin’s touring band members Tom Kneebone ( guitar/vocals), Kiah Gossner (Bass) together with session players David Resce ( Drums), Aaron Nash ( Organ/Grand Piano and )Julian Ferraretto ( Strings).Tara Mc Henry, Laura Knowles and Delia Obst all contribute additional vocal harmonies.
The material ranges from the country rocking opener Passion Parade with an addictive laid back riff and harmonies to the gorgeous love ballad Never Get You Off My Mind and the dreamlike 5019. The song writing is strong, solid with tales of love, loss, regret and reflection. Cronin’s high pitched and sometimes fragile vocal is the winner throughout, quite often complemented by well-timed harmonies.
The Looking Lead Me To The Water Rhizome Man
The Looking is in essence New York City based singer songwriter and producer Todd Carter. His previous album Songs For a Traveler, released in 2013, explored the American songbook from the 19th Century up the 1950’s covering standards such as Black Is The Colour, Old Man River, Blue River and Long Black Veil. Lead Me To the Water. Carter’s inspiration for this current album was the songbooks of the Country music legends Merle Haggard, Ray Price and Townes Van Zandt, whose work he immersed himself.
Between the recordings of each album Carter produced recordings by Argentinian Bernardo Palombo and French artist Leopold.
Carter, who received degrees in Religion and Philosophy at Indiana University most certainly has an open mind in respect of his musical influences. Together with his research of the great American songbook for his previous album he also cites Syd Barrett, The Circle Jerks, Husker Vu and The Smiths as artists that were very much on his radar. As a result the listener won’t make an immediate connection individually with the music of Haggard, Price or Van Zandt on first spin of the album though further plays expose their influences.
The title track and open track draws the listener straight away thanks in no small measure to some dreamy pedal steel playing by Gerald Menke. The Well, which follows, is a fuller and rockier affair with a killer guitar riff and backing vocals compliments of Sasha Dobson who plays regularly with Nora Jones. Not Your Friend and Where Did You Go have a mid-70’s West Coast Jackson Browne feel, You And Me recalls the sound of Josh Rouse. Burning Doves bookends the album very much in a similar style that the title track opened it, a gentle country rock sound aided once more by Menke’s lovely pedal steel.
The album was produced by Carter and Bill Finizio with all songs written by Carter with the exception of You and Me co-written with Finizio and Where Did You Go which was written with Tim Curtis–Verderosa. It credits thirteen musicians other than Carter and Finizio and is most certainly the work of an artist that has the talent and achieves a sound that could make a major industry breakthrough.
Erika Kulnys Rise Up Self Release
The possessor of a quite extraordinary voice, Rise Up, the seventh studio album by Kulnys, finds the Nova Scotia resident in fine form reflecting on matters worldly as well as closer to home.
The album’s twelve tracks, all penned by Kulnys, are both personal ( Love Me In The Morning, Carolina, Love’s Not Wasted) and political (Rise Up, Roaring For A Revolution), the common bond being the quality of the story telling and that heart stirring vocal that dips and soars effortlessly throughout.
The aforementioned Roaring For A Revolution, the cream of the crop, bears a healthy relation to Anais Mitchell in style and indeed delivery. Kulnys powerful and soaring vocal is the winner here without doubt, bringing the poignant lyrics and melody to life.
The title track speaks for the repressed and downtrodden "Rise up, Now is the hour Rise up, Take back your power, Rise up, We will not wait, We rise up today."
Equally comfortable singing the blues on I’m On Fire or folk ballads such as Angel On The Road and Honeysuckle the album as a whole reinforces the versatility and rounded talent of an artist well worth checking out.
Callie Hopper Out of the Shadows Callie Hopper Music
This is the second album release by the 20-year-old Nashville resident Callie Hopper. As the title would suggest the album features open hearted material and is a large step forward from her debut album Notes On Love And Such, which she recorded as a sixteen-year-old. It also reveals the song writing talent of a young lady mature well beyond her years. The material is credited as co-written with producer Ryan Speakman and Chad Alexander, with the exception of Stay which is credited to Hopper alone.
The music in general is quite mainstream, possibly closer to the pop end of the market rather than that wide umbrella we classify as Americana and it’s probably the correct market for her to target.
Created over a two-year period it is commendable that much of the album was primarily written when Hopper was a teenager and it’s understandable that many of the songs deal with relationships and vulnerability (Stay, So Much, Hold On, This Songs Not For You).
The title and opening track, however, is a wonderful coming of age song with the writer prepared to bare her soul while agonising over how her stories and honesty might be perceived. "If I open up my heart to you, if I show you what’s inside, will you listen to my words, will you feel what I wrote."
Notwithstanding Hoppers ability to pen strong material she also possesses a delightful voice and engaged a strong band of musicians to bring the songs to life including co-writers Alexander on guitars and piano and Speakman on drums percussion and organ. Chad Alexander also shares vocals on Fire and Ice.
Possessing the song writing ability, a gorgeous vocal ability and style, Hopper is more than than well situated to enjoy a successful career and is in the right place both musically and geographically to be noticed and nurtured. Whether her journey continues down a mainstream route or takes a slight diversion in a more countrified direction will be interesting.
One to watch without doubt.
Jemima James At Longview Farm/When You Get Old Team Love Records
An extraordinary project and album in many ways. Jemima James, now 65 years old, wrote At Longview Farm in 1979 and it has taken 38 years for it to see the light of day, being finally released by Team Love Records. But the story does not end there as the album has been released as a double which also features When You Get Old ( 65’s not old anymore Jemima!), her recent 2015 recording. James’s life story is intriguing, having dropped out of art school in the early 70’s, she relocated to New York and was employed by Famous Music as a songwriter. The great grandchild of the most famous American philosopher William James (brother of the author Henry James), her career has seen her employed as a writer, performer, cook, pre-school teacher and carer. Her early life also found her working for three years at Long View Farm, cleaning, cooking, milking cows and also serving food to a range of artists including J.Geils Band, Tim Curry, Arlo Guthrie and The Rolling Stones.
She and Michael Mason are also parents to Willy and Sam Mason, both accomplished artists in their own right, both understandably feature on When You Get Old.
What makes the intriguing story complete is the quality of both albums. Notwithstanding the musical excellence, the packaging, liner notes and photography are delightful. The cover on the earlier album features James with the classic 70’s singer looks, wild hair and sweet impish smile. When You Get Old depicts James in more recent times, still in possession of the impish smile!
It was during her three year stay at Long View Farm that she recorded At Longview Farm. Two tracks in on my first listen had me reaching for the liner notes in full expectation that the track Havana Cigar is a Townes Van Zandt song that had somehow escaped me over the years. The standout track on the album, It is in fact written by James, as are all the other tracks on the album and is of a standard that compares with Van Zandt’s finest. Not trailing far behind in the quality stakes are One More Rodeo, Jackson County and Esperate. The album is most definitely of its time, folk music soaked in country, assured playing throughout and delivered beautifully by James. The work of Linda Ronstadt and Guy Clark come to mind.
When You Get Old was recorded at Old Soul Studio in Catskill, New York in October 2015 and unlike her earlier album includes four well selected cover versions, If I Could Only Fly by Blaze Foley, Tennessee Blues by Bobby Charles, Gillian Welch’s One and Only and If It’s The End written by her son Willy Mason. She also revisits the earlier album with versions of Sensible Shoes and Easy Come Easy Go featuring in the thirteen tracks. The vocals remain as sweet and disciplined as her earlier album with the playing equally accomplished.
Listening to At Longview Farm one has to wonder how many quality recordings are packed away in attics, garages and recording studios that for a variety of reasons never found their way on to the record store shelves and a subtle reminder of the thin line between commercial success and oblivion.
Various Artists Five Years of Country to Country C2C (2013-2017) Hump Head Records
The Country to Country Festival was first staged in 2013, bringing a wide range of artists annually to London, Glasgow and Dublin. It takes place over a weekend and includes acts that represent traditional country, modern country, crossover pop country, bluegrass and rock music.
In celebration of the continuing success of the festival Hump Head Records have released this double album featuring many of the acts that have appeared at the various venues over the past five years.
Impressively packaged and including a glossy forty-page booklet, the album features forty tracks in total across quite a wide musical range catering for all tastes. Full on rockers Brantley Gilbert (One Hell Of An Amen) and Eric Church (Springsteen) sit side by side with more classic country honky tonkers Dwight Yoakam (Take Hold Of My Hand) and Marty Stuart (Time Don’t Wait). Legendary Nashville household names Reba Mc Entire (Consider Me Gone) and Lee Ann Womack (Last Call) are complimented by their neighbours and a new generation of female singer songwriters in Ashley Monroe (If The Devil Don’t Want Me) and Brandy Clark (Girl Next Door). UK duo’s The Shires (State Lines) and Ward Thomas (Guilty Flowers) represent acts closer to home that have benefitted greatly by the exposure they have been given by appearing at the festival. Multi award winner Chris Stapleton (Tennessee Whiskey) introduces a slice of country blues in to the mix. More modern country is featured with the inclusion of Brad Paisley (The Mona Lisa) and Jennifer Nettles (That Girl). Female singer songwriter Miranda Lambert (Little Wagon), with the capability to excel in all the foregoing strands of country music is also represented.
The purists may argue that the material is not entirely representative of country music in the true sense (which it does not claim to do, in fairness), but without doubt one of achievements of C2C has been to introduce a younger UK and Irish age group in considerable numbers to country music, both recorded and live, as well as the ‘older grey hairs’ who would traditionally be considered the target audience.
It’s inevitable that not all tracks on the album will be to everyone’s liking. However, it does present what the music industry considers to represent country music today and with the depth of artists featured should include music to suit most country listeners taste.
Michael Howard Gasoline Dream Self Release
Alaskan born and reared Michael Howard, similar to so many other singer songwriters, had an early career playing punk music prior to settling back in to a career as a folk singer songwriter. Maybe the remoteness of residing in the rural setting of the Last Frontier with its long dark winters made a mark in terms of self-survival as Gasoline Dreams, though primarily folk and some protest songs, also retains the DIY dimension with a number of the tracks being recorded entirely live by Howard. The album was recorded at Tiny Telephone Studios in San Francisco with production and engineering duties carried out by Jacob Winik (Magnetic Fields, Samantha Crain).
In the main it is very much a stripped to the bone affair with the emphasis most definably on the written word and the stories within. Vocal and acoustic guitar dominate with minimal additional instrumentation courtesy of Kevin Worrell on bass and keys, Andrew Maguire adds percussion.
The songs are heartfelt and personal, written and delivered by an artist with an obvious deep social conscious and a passion for storytelling. With Howard’s distinctive almost spoken vocal the album may take a few listens to grab you but songs such as opener Meet Me at the Front Line, Hog Butcher Hog Butcher and the title and closing track are representative of an album that is a Sunday morning rather than a Saturday night listen.